Bridges of spiritual and mental states

the abstract medium1 of printed words [has] become the main bridge for the inter-awareness of spiritual and mental states. (Culture Without Literacy)2

There are many important implications to this passage from McLuhan’s essay in the first issue of Explorations in 1953. Above all, it suggests, or demands, that mentality and spirituality are to be distinguished, and that they are to be distinguished in such a way that the subjection of mentality to spirituality is considered a live option. In an age of advertising and propaganda (which turn on the dominion of mentality), this is a radical and unheard of notion that has largely disappeared from western ‘culture’ after having been an important force in it for millennia. 

Unpacking the notion might include considerations like the following:

First, if the medium of print has “become the main bridge of inter-awareness”, there must be other bridges of such inter-awareness. Plural. One alone cannot be said to be the ‘main’ one.

Second, if “spiritual and mental states” need not only to be bridged, but also to be differentiated (since a bridge must have two ends)3, there must be a plurality of mental/spiritual ratios corresponding to the plural bridges of inter-awareness between them.

Third, if there are plural “spiritual and mental states” with plural bridges of the inter-awareness between them, it must be questionable which of them (spiritual or mental) is more basic than the other — ie, which one is figure and which one is ground. And if this question cannot be established apriori (which is what it means for something to be questionable)  it must be allowed that there is a range of possible ratios between the two of them stretching from the dominance of spirituality at one end of the range to the dominance of mentality at the other. 

Fourth, the values represented by the ratios along this range must amount to possible ontologies, plural, since each amounts to a constellation according to which the spiritual and the mental may be perceived, relative to each other, to be. At the same time, the range presents possible moralities (how they ought to be) and utilities (how and why they might aim).

Fifth, entry into consideration of these questions must be made, if at all, freely and spontaneously since it would be thoughtless to consider the range of the ratios or bridges between “spiritual and mental states” on the presupposed basis of one of them. If such consideration is possible at all, therefore, it must be possible to initiate it, either completely absent such presupposition, or on the accepted basis of a presupposition that somehow does not decide in advance on the fundamentality question between them. (This either/or may itself be a both/and!

Sixth, however entry is made to such considerations, the enabled investigation must be aware that it is perpetually subject to recall and revision — since the object of its investigations implicates the question of its own reality and its own fitness to the task at hand. (McLuhan in ‘Culture Without Literacy’: “the basic requirement of any system of communication [from language as learned by an infant to the hard sciences] is that it be circular, with, of course, the possibility of self-correction.”)

Seventh, both because of the unavoidable circularity of such probing, and because of the related essential difference between range4 and instance of that range, investigations of these matters implicate a finitude which has been difficult or impossible for ‘thinkers’ in the propaganda era to admit. Or, even more, to accept as the very keystone of any authentic cum scientific investigation of the humanities and social disciplines.  

Eighth, there is therefore a necessary doubling5 between mentality at any time and its actual and possible spiritual states that introduces incessant questions of its ontology, morality and utility. Demanding (or at least supposing there is) a de-finitive answer to these questions defines the ‘Gutenberg era’. Balancing in the finite dynamics of these questions defines the ‘Marconi era’. (The ‘main question‘ of an understanding media project would be how to investigate both of these without privileging one of them — for privilege in either direction would be not to question.)

Ninth, as soon as the “doublin” of mentality and spirituality is admitted, a new context is identified for human being on this earth. Its implication is  that human beings reside by nature in the questionability of ontology, morality and utility. Known or unknown, intelligibility and action arise at every moment only in relation to these questions — each is always only one possible response among many equally possible other responses to them. Accordingly, human being would be that unique sort of being which is inexorably exposed to plurality in both its exterior and interior landscapes — it would be the offspring of, and witness to, this fecundity.



  1. McLuhan has ‘media’ here, not ‘medium’. At this point in his career he was still on his way to the need to focus on a medium through the range of media.
  2. Explorations 1, 1953.
  3. Joyce in Ulysses: a pier is “a disappointed bridge”.
  4. Range itself implicates finitude, since a range is necessarily a plurality and a plurality must include borders de-fining the units of that plurality.
  5. Joyce on the first page of FW: “doublin their mumper all the time” (where ‘mumper’ is both ‘number’ and ‘lout’ and therefore a multiple and hilarious example of the working of doublin/Dublin).